There are evergreens in Jerry Payne’s forest. And everblues, too.
They are shaped and colored vessels from all over. They have been carried, held and poured. This is their final resting place.
Some are red and yellow, like leaves in the fall. Only they are not deciduous. In previous lives, they were filled with Pinot Noir, perfume and soda pop.
Friday is National Arbor Day, a celebration of trees. Jerry has thousands of them across the 90 acres he owns at the edges of Crawford, Bibb and Monroe counties.
But beneath the boughs of oaks and pines are groves of bottle trees. They leap from the ground on old fence posts and spread their branches along high beams, hanging on 9-inch aluminum nails.
They line trails and foot paths across his property. They have been “planted” there in honor of relatives, friends and cats. They have been dedicated to monasteries, moonshiners and the mailman.
He placed the first “tree” in memory of his mother, Rebecca. It is adorned with blue and green bottles from fine French and Italian wines. She was fascinated with colored bottles and would put them in the yard. She believed they collected the “haints” at night, and then the sun would destroy them the next day.
“After I made my mother’s tree, I knew I wasn’t going to stop at just one,” he said. “I’m like Mae West. Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.”
He thought he might quit after 30 or 40 because his bottle supply would dry up. But he collected them everywhere he went, and folks from three states began saving them for him.
He now has 140 trees, filled with more than 13,000 bottles, and the number keeps climbing. They sparkle by the dawn’s early light, and catch the last rays at dusk, like stained glass in an outdoor sanctuary.
“They’re pretty,” he said. “I like the colors and the sounds they make.”
Jerry will be 80 in December, so he is approaching redwood status. But he’s still a live wire, both electric and eclectic.
He is a retired research entomologist from the Southeast Fruit and Tree Nut Research Laboratory in Byron. He is known locally for his butterfly counts. He and his wife, Rose, often can be found digging for the half-dozen old home sites on their property or exploring Bond Swamp in search of dragonflies.
Jerry claims to be in ‘R’ stage of life. Retirement. Realignment. Relocation. Remodeling. Replacement. Remailing. Redesigning. Relatives. Relationships.
But apparently not much “Rest.” He spends several hours each day going full-throttle bottle.
“The day I retired, I said I didn’t want to do another thing I had done before,” he said. “This is my childhood coming back. I pick up things in the woods. I paint angels on turtle shells and make wing-bone turkey calls.”
His obsession with glass goes back to when he was a boy. His father was a tenant farmer who worked in the dairy on a 4,000-acre John Hay Whitney plantation in northern Virginia. (Whitney was ambassador to the United Kingdom and his estate was at one time the largest in the U.S. He was lifelong friends with Fred Astaire and provided half the funding for the making of “Gone With the Wind.”)
Jerry and his brother, Ronald, would pick up Coca-Cola bottles on the way home from school and collect the 2-cent deposits. Later, when he attended a high school 10 miles away in another county, he would pass through a poor section of town.
“I was amazed at how they used everything, particularly glass, and had these bottle trees in their yards,” he said. “They had bottles in circles around all their flower beds. They painted tires and rocks. They used a lot of metal and had what my father called ‘whirly gigs’ that moved with the wind.”
Some folks called it tacky or gaudy. Jerry proclaimed it art.
There was a private landfill on the plantation. It was a dumping ground, but to the Payne brothers it was a treasure trove. The wealthy people would toss their wine and liquor bottles there. His mother would allow her children to decorate the family Christmas tree with tiny glass bottles. Ladies would save perfume and fingernail polish bottles for the family.
He began his bottle collecting in 1959, when he lived in Tennessee. He discovered several pieces of glass in caves. He displayed them in cabinets. They stayed inside, even after he purchased part of the old Hart family property on Montpelier Station Road in 1984.
Three years ago, friends and acquaintances began delivering him bottles. The abbot at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers gives him altar candle containers and large wine bottles used for communion. A man who works at a “gentleman’s club” in Atlanta began bringing him high-end liquor bottles.
Every time he eats at Cracker Barrel, Jerry saves the tiny syrup bottles. He and Rose go bottle hunting along the roads and highways. He has been banned from at least one county recycling center, which accused him of — no pun intended — cutting into their profits.
Two of his neighbors, Elaine Heavner and Ashlin Breland, became intrigued with Jerry’s glass forest and joined him and Rose to form the Tick Hill Community Art Alliance.
Every tree tells a story. One is a moonshine shrine. He had two uncles who were moonshiners. The whiskey bottles have a dimple in them, so as to slide into the pocket of a pair of overalls.
Another uncle was a barber, so Jerry honored him with a “barber pole” bottle tree. One tree is in memory of a beloved black cat named Gus, short for Attapulgus, a town in southwest Georgia where deposits of attapulgite (used to make cat litter) can be found.
Still another tree honors a filmmaker friend in Virginia, who is into Zen. It is decorated of Lucky Buddha and Rolling Rock beer bottles. There are “medicinal” trees, filled with milk of magnesia, arthritis remedies and tonics for whatever else ails you.
A neighbor, who is a regular supplier of bottles, brought his four children for a tour of the garden. He often brings pickle jars, and Jerry and Rose give him a hard time about feeding his kids so many pickles.
“His youngest daughter, about 6 years old, suddenly announced she wanted to be married there,” said Jerry. “I told her father if he was hosting a wedding in the garden, he needed to bring more that pickle jars.”
The sky is not always the limit. He has a few 13-foot trees, and the four tallest represent the cardinal points of a compass. His wife won’t let him build anything taller than 10 feet, and she insists she has be around when he’s on a ladder.
After all, he’s almost an octogenarian. For his birthday one year, she gave him a large box of aluminum spikes.
There have been a few casualties. Tree limbs have fallen and shattered the glass. Aging lumber has been a victim of termites and carpenter bees.
Jerry imagines a day when his site is excavated and his creation is discovered by some future archaeologist.
“I want somebody to come here and dig a thousand years from now, when I’m gone, and find all these bottles on the trees that have collapsed,” he said. “And I want them to say, ‘My God! What cult was here?’ ’’
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism and creative writing at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.